Third thoughts on a tricky subject

Do we need another biography of Richard Nixon? Anthony Summers thinks we do, and you can see his point. Long vilified, even before Watergate, as one of the dirtiest players in American politics, Nixon experienced a revival towards the end of his life. Revisionist biographies appeared (not least one by Jonathan Aitken), speeches were made, a Nixon Centre was established and the disgraced president gradually acquired the halo of an elder statesman and foreign policy expert, a man widely consulted by sitting politicians, Bill Clinton among them. The reassessment of Nixon’s legacy culminated in the former president’s funeral in 1994, when all of his successors gathered to pay their respects; Time magazine ran a respectful cover photograph of him alongside the headline ‘His Parting Advice to Bill Clinton: America Must Lead.’

Summers, the biographer of J. Edgar Hoover and Marilyn Monroe, among others, appears to have found all of this somewhat hard to take. The result is this book, which argues that, actually, Nixon was a lot worse than you thought he was: a revision of the revisionism, as it were.

With the true bloodhound instincts of an investigative reporter, Summers throws himself at the task of proving his thesis -and out come the skeletons, tumbling from the closet. Here are the definitive accounts of Nixon’s seedy Florida friend, Bebe Rebozo, who appears to have been linked to everything from Nixon’s secret bank accounts in Zurich to Watergate; the tales of illegal election campaign contributions from the mafia, Greek dictators, Saudi arms dealers, and the Shah of Iran; the stories of Nixon’s excessive drinking and pill-taking, his cold, phoney marriage, and his hidden relationship with a somewhat peculiar shrink, whom Summers interviewed at length. Here are the myths which Nixon invented about himself (that his wife was born on St Patrick’s Day, that his childhood was deeply impoverished, that he was a war hero), the obsessive wire-tapping, and the infamous ‘Enemies Lists’, the names of people whom he considered a threat, and the burglaries, office break-ins, and physical violence with which he plagued them. So numerous were these mysterious incidents of harassment, in fact, that Summers writes, ‘Only the most glaringly pertinent can be covered in these pages.’

By the time one gets to the end of this litany, Watergate itself seems like an anti-climax, the inevitable result of a White House gone mad, which in a way is exactly what it was. Once Nixon’s minions had got used to the idea of breaking into people’s offices at night, bugging telephones and harassing, physically and otherwise, the president’s enemies, then the decision to carry out more of the same at the Democratic National Committee’s Watergate headquarters was hardly a great leap into criminality. From the direct involvement of Cuban burglars to the distant but distinct influence of Rebozo, Watergate simply appears, in retrospect, like a more or less typical Nixonian covert operation.

It makes for good reading, if you can keep track of all of the numerous bank vice-presidents and mafia dons involved in the story, and provides some good lessons as well: one needs to be reminded, occasionally, of just how money-grubbing and corrupt, not to mention sordid and conspiratorial, American politics can be. Accounts of the Kennedy assassination serve the same function (perhaps not coincidentally, Summers has written one of those too). Summers doesn’t always find the smoking gun: on several key accusations – for example Nixon’s Swiss bank accounts – the evidence is overwhelming, but still circumstantial. Still, 30 years after many of the events, with many of the participants now dead, it is amazing how broad the paper trail remains.

The only other difficulty is that, in revising the revisionism, Summers necessarily brings up a lot that will be familiar to those of us who never bought the original revisionism in the first place. I am no Nixon expert, but nevertheless recognised many of the stories and protagonists. Certainly one of his major themes – that Nixon was a very, very weird man – is also a pretty well-established fact, even among the ex-president’s former colleagues and defenders. That he was paranoid, that he was hate-filled in the extreme, that he was lonely, all of this is known. Henry Kissinger has been saying that to everyone and anyone he happens to meet, myself included, pretty much for the past two decades.

To his credit, Summers recognises that this is a point with broader implications for American politics, and briefly speculates on the interesting question of whether anyone can become president and still remain sane. He quotes one of Nixon’s associates musing on the question of what it takes to be president:

Their life is a combination of lying and cheating, nobility and patriotism, and cowardice. There’s a sort of presidential gene, a predilection in people who become President that makes them very strange. And Richard Nixon just happened to be the one of the strangest of a very strange crew.

It isn’t enough of an explanation perhaps, but it helps.

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